In the history of the United States, certain groups of people have been subjected to horrible treatment. African Americans were enslaved for two hundred years. Native Americans were forcibly relocated. Many of these actions reflected the official policy of the United States Government at the time. There is no denying that these things happened; however, the question is how do these events from the past influence our present?
It is easy to write off these experiences if you were not in the targeted group. People often say things like: It was a long time ago. Why should the current generation be held responsible for events that happened in the time of our ancestors? It’s time for people to just get over it and stop making excuses.
This approach is short-sighted, if not self-serving. A few months ago, a group of judges, attorneys, and other court professionals assembled to hear some of the stories of these communities, and to learn some of the science showing how the past affects our present.
Social scientists call this “historical trauma,” and it is a very real phenomenon. Research has shown that the effects of these events from long ago are handed down from generation to generation, and still influence attitudes and behaviors today. For example, in the time of slavery, the African American community was largely matriarchal, and fatherhood was devalued as children and fathers were often separated by the slave owners. Runaway slaves were often apprehended by law enforcement, leading to a distrust of police. Fast forward 150 years, and the African American community is still struggling with some of the lingering effects of these actions. For many years, large groups of Native American children were involuntarily sent off to boarding schools, where they were subjected to physical abuse and the erasure of their cultural beliefs. Although this policy of assimilation is now regarded as an abject failure, the effects are still felt by Native Americans today. Telling the current generation to “get over it” is much easier said than done.
As judges, we see some of these effects every day. People of color in the United States are significantly more likely to live in poverty, have difficulty obtaining housing and employment, and experience shorter life expectancies than white Americans. Communities of color are dramatically overrepresented in our criminal justice system, both at the state and federal levels. People of color are far more likely to end up in prison than white Americans. This has an additional ripple effect of limiting political representation in these communities, as convicted felons lose the right to vote for years, if not forever.
To be clear, none of this is a defense to any criminal behavior. People are still responsible for their individual actions. But as a society, we have to be willing to have an honest conversation about these historical events. We have to tailor current government policies to mitigate the effects of this historical trauma. For those of us whose skin is white, we have to acknowledge the past and listen to these stories. Hopefully with a better understanding, we can gradually start to undo the damage.
Judge Dale Harris is a District Court Judge in the Sixth Judicial District he can be reached via email at Dale.Harris@courts.state.mn.us